Saturday, March 21, 2020

12.2: Spyfall part 2

In Which The Doctor Is Unbounced 

The Doctor's unique selling point is that she has a Time Machine: so the series has to find new ways of being about Time Travel. Old Who used use history as a source of settings and locations R.T.D and Moffat were more interested in using Time to create complicated four dimensional narrative structures. This week, Chibnall allows the Doctor to jump between three different historical settings in a single episode. If the Doctor is going to encounter the Master again, she might as well encounter him in  Victorian England and World War II Paris. This foregrounds the fact that the Doctor is a Time Traveler and ups the ante a little bit higher. We now know that the Alienses are active right through human history. But it doesn't disrupt narrative causality in the way that Moffat's constructions tended to. 

Very Old Who just dropped the Doctor into an historical genre -- knights in armour or cowboys and Indians or the Scarlet Pimpernel. Less Old Who, from the Time Monster inwards, used historical backdrops to tell the same kinds of alien invasion tales that could just as well have happened in 1980s London. New Who Historicals generally involve the Doctor meeting up with some important historical character and bouncing about how famous and important they are. I rather enjoy seeing the Doctor get starstruck, but speeches about everyone being amazing and important in their own way can get a little wearisome. 

This weeks she meets Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, and then leaps forward half a century and meets Nora Baker in Nazi occupied Paris. Ada Lovelace is important to the plot because the Alienses are messing around with the development of computers. Nora Baker just happens to be the nearest famous person to the Doctor when the TARDIS misfires.

The scenes are quite fun: I enjoyed the Master coming over all General Zod and forcing the Doctor to kneel to him. The encounter between the Master and the Doctor at the top of the Eiffel Tower was worth the price of admission on its own. They felt like actual people with interiority and motivations; while also being representatives of an alien civilization with a history that they know about and we don't. A hundred and twenty minutes provides the narrative space for longish conversation of this kind. It is taken for granted that Ada Lovelace is the significant person: Babbage comes across as a typically patronising Victorian male. Sylvia Briggs deserves a lot of kudos for playing Ada completely straight; and the script allows her to talk more or less like a Victorian lady is supposed to talk. 

The three plot threads completely fail to come together in an convincing way. The presence of the Master disrupts everything. Daniel Barton is very plausible as a completely unscrupulous computer whiz kid who is still bitter about his upbringing and needing the approval of his mother. He could have been an interesting baddie in his own right. His speech to the conference about how people have given all their personal data and control over their lives to billionaire tech magnates like him was fairly interesting. There could have been an interesting story about what an amoral character could do with all that information. But all Barton's really does is make a Faustian pact: he sell the human race to the Alienses in return for... 

I am not actually quite clear what he was getting out of the deal. It's hard to see what someone who likes fast cars and parties and prestige would do in a world where all the rest of the human race has been wiped out. And although there is a bit of waffle about how the Alienses are made of data and want to rewrite human DNA because the human mind is the most powerful hard drive in the universe, it really boils down to "They want to conquer the earth because they are Doctor Who baddies and that is what Doctor Who baddies do." 

The presence of the Master saps both the human and the Alien villains of any agency or motivation. The Master does stuff because he's Evil. Barton and the Alienses do things because the Master has manipulated them. The whole scheme was only ever a ruse to get the Doctor's attention so the Master can tell her what he has discovered about the True History of Gallifrey. 

I guess the Master has to exist. Once you have had the idea of a traveler who bounces through history doing Good Things, the idea that she has a counterpart who growls through history doing bad things is irresistible. In some way, the Monk was a better idea: a naughty version of the Doctor who mucks around with history because it's fun. The Monk had an objective: the Master is evil for the sake of being evil; because being evil annoys the Doctor. Delgado and Ainley were Punch and Judy devils; John Simm redefined that character as a psychotic imp, with a sadomasochistic crush on the Doctor. Missy was pure, genre bending camp and quite brilliant at it. If a series allows character to regenerate, this is what regeneration should look like: versions of the same character who are completely unlike one another. It is easy enough to believe that Jodie Whittaker is a different manifestation of David Tennant. Believing that John Simm and Michelle Gomez are the same person requires an act of faith.

Sacha Dhawan can definitely act. But he's doing John Simms all over again: a grinning, gleeful, Luicferian clown. 

The Master's revelations -- that Gallifrey is dead, again, and that there is something unpleasant in Gallifreyan history that even the Doctor doesn't know about -- noticeably changes Jodie Whittaker's Doctor. We find out that she can brood as well as bounce. The final scene, with her separated from the rest of the TARDIS crew while Graham awkwardly asks her questions about her identity, fixes a lot of what was broken in the last season. Bradley Walsh is wonderful in scenes like this, when he has to act as the grown-up member of the crew: I wish Chibnall could resist the temptation to use him as comic relief in other scenes.


Back in Human Nature, Paul Cornell playfully claimed that the Doctor's parents were named Sydney and Verity. In An Adventure and Time and Space, Sacha Dhawan did a very good turn as Waris Hussain. So it is now canonically true that the Master produced the First Doctor.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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